PING PONG WITH BLANCMANGE

The New European - - Eurofile Theatre - STAGE RE­VIEW BY TIM WALKER

Switzer­land

Am­bas­sadors The­atre, till Jan­uary 5 ★★★☆☆

When Christ­mas ap­proaches – and with it the prospect of big fam­ily re­unions – the thoughts of the na­tion al­ways seem to turn in­ex­orably to­wards mur­der. No fes­tive sea­son is, after all, com­plete with­out Miss Marple mak­ing an ap­pear­ance on tele­vi­sion, along with Sher­lock Holmes, and good, old-fash­ioned hor­ror films seem sud­denly to be in de­mand, too.

The West End is al­ready get­ting into the homi­ci­dal spirit with Joanna Mur­raySmith’s Switzer­land. It is a de­cep­tive ti­tle for a darkly comic piece about the re­al­life au­thor Pa­tri­cia High­smith, de­picted here con­tem­plat­ing new ways of dis­patch­ing char­ac­ters in a fol­low-up novel to her most cel­e­brated work, The Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley.

The can­tan­ker­ous High­smith – played as pure ar­senic in old lace by Down­ton Abbey’s Phyl­lis Lo­gan – did in­deed live in the shadow of the Swiss Alps in Lo­carno, but, judg­ing by the prox­im­ity of the moun­tain tops vis­i­ble from her win­dows in Wil­liam Dudley’s pre­pos­ter­ous set, you could be for­given for think­ing her prop­erty was at least 4,500m up.

Some­how an anaemic young man from her New York pub­lish­ing house – played by Calum Fin­lay – man­ages to make the jour­ney to see her and an­nounces that his job de­pends on him get­ting her to sign a con­tract to write a fur­ther Ri­p­ley story. He pre­sump­tu­ously of­fers to help out with the plot and help her, too, to de­vise a blood­cur­dling new mur­der.

The lad loves mu­si­cals and tells his

re­luc­tant host that her work Strangers on a Train re­ally spoke to him, but, for all that, High­smith doesn’t seem to twig that he is gay and won­ders out loud if he has a girl­friend. This is one of two fun­da­men­tal prob­lems with Mur­raySmith’s work: her High­smith just doesn’t seem to be ter­ri­bly bright.

The chem­istry be­tween the two ac­tors isn’t ex­actly elec­tri­fy­ing, ei­ther, which, when the play is a two-han­der, is a bit of a downer. The lines – some of them are mildly amus­ing – ought to bounce be­tween the two prin­ci­pals. This feels more like chuck­ing a suc­ces­sion of ping pong balls at a pair of blanc­manges.

The piece is an un­easy mix of fact and fic­tion – yes, the real High­smith did live in the shadow of a moun­tain, but no, she didn’t gen­er­ally threaten her guests with knives – and what it lacks, above all, is any of the sense of fun that is to be had, for in­stance, in The Mouse­trap, play­ing just a stone’s throw away from this the­atre.

The di­rec­tor Lucy Bai­ley has form when it comes to di­rect­ing plays in this genre – her Wit­ness for the Prose­cu­tion is still play­ing at County Hall – but it still feels less like a who­dun­nit than a what­s­the­p­oint. Cer­tainly Mur­ray-smith is no Agatha Christie and I rather imag­ine this play­wright must have High­smith – who died in 1995 – turn­ing in her grave. I won’t spoil it by say­ing who kills who at the end, but I can say, so far as I was con­cerned, the dead­li­est mur­der weapon utilised in this piece is ul­ti­mately bore­dom.

Photo: Nobby Clark

DARKLY COMIC: Calum Fin­lay and Phyl­lis Lo­gan in Switzer­land

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